In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Cleburne's Division at the Battle of Resaca, 1864

When Gen. William T. Sherman's 100,000-man Union force flanked him at Rocky Face Ridge, Confederate, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was forced to withdraw his Army of Tennessee to the hills around Resaca, Georgia. Here he will make a stand in the Battle of Recaca, fought on May 13-15, 1864.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
WPA map of the Battle of Resaca, May 13-15, 1864*
Gen. Patrick Cleburne marched his division (in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in the 32nd Mississippi) with William J. Hardee's Corps to the ridge above Camp Creek Valley where his men built rifle pits to defend against the advancing enemy. Har-dee's Corps was in the center of the line, Polk's Corps was on the left, and Hood's Corps was placed on on the right, extending across the rail line to the Conasauga River. Johnston intended to defend Resaca in the hopes that Sherman will make a costly frontal assault or leave himself open to a counterstrike.

For his part, Sherman is under the impression that Johnston is merely stalling to gain time to retreat further south across the Ostanaula River. With that in mind, Sherman ordered a pontoon bridge to be assembled across the river at Lay's Ferry, which he planed to use in order to cut of Johnston's retreat. In the meantime, he will try to keep Johnston's army in place.

Soon on the 13th, Federal soldiers began skirmishing with the Confederates, probing the army's strength. Full-scale fighting commenced early the following morning. Sherman ordered the attacked  to begin on what he assumed to be the Confederate right. Due to the difficult terrain Sherman's assault accomplished little, and by mid-afternoon it ground to a halt with significant losses. Changing strategies, he he ordered an artillery bombardment of the Confederate position.

Cleburne reported that during the afternoon, "the enemy made several attempts to charge, but uniformly they were unhappy failures." In this afternoon struggle, Cleburne's sharpshooters had the major role. They repeatedly silenced the Union batteries firing from 800 yards away, and also destroyed a line of Federal skirmishers. On Hood's front, his men made a successful charge before darkness brought it to a halt. Union troops were generally repulsed along the line.

On the 15th, the battle continued with no advantage to either side. Sherman was learning that direct assaults were too costly, so he attempted a tactic that worked for him at Rocky Face Ridge, and one he will employ throughout the Atlanta Campaign: He ordered a flanking movement. Having numerical superiority of nearly 2 to 1, he was able to leave a large force at Resaca to threaten Johnston's front while using his right wing to turn the Confederate left. He also sent a force over the Oostanula River behind Johnston and towards his railroad lifeline to Atlanta.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Cemetery at Resaca, final resting place for some 400 Confederate fallen,
many of whom are unknown

Unable to halt this Union turning movement, Johnston employed one of his own tactics that he will use often in the campaign: Defend a position until the advantage is lost, then withdraw to fight again. Because Johnston did not have sufficient forces both to hold the Resaca position and men enough to detach for the threat to his rear, he was forced to retire. For the second time Johnston has escaped disaster, but also has abandoned another strategically strong defensive position, thus permitting Sherman to push further towards Atlanta.

The battle's outcome was indecisive. For its part, the 32nd Mississippi Regiment suffered 5 killed and 7 wounded. As a whole the army received 2,800 casualties to a Union loss of over 4,000.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Late in the evening of the 15th, Cleburne withdrew his division with the rest of the corps under the protection of skirmishers left behind for cover. They crossed the Ostenaula River over a trestle bridge, and marched to within a few miles of Calhoun. The battle for Cleburne's men at Recaca had been relatively light. That will change almost immediately, and in the weeks ahead, his men will be called upon to defend the army in near ceaseless fighting.

Johnston will rest his army at Calhoun before marching them on the 17th to a new defensive position at Adairsville.

* An excellent map of the battle is available at the Civil War Trust website.

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, Albert Castel; A Different Valor: Joseph E. Johnston, Gilbert Govan & James Livingwood; Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, Dunbar Rowland; Official Records, Vol. 38, Pt. 3

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